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Council Watch

SMART, The Sequel: City Introduces Affordable Housing Program

By Jenny Staff Johnson, April 28, 2000, News

The city's oft-stated commitment to affordable housing got some new teeth last week, with the approval of the SMART housing initiative. (SMART, in this case, standing for Safe, Mixed-income, Accessible to the mobility impaired, Reasonably priced, and Transit-oriented.) Touted as the next step in the evolution of Smart Growth, the initiative aims to make Austin more affordably livable -- thus curbing suburban sprawl -- by encouraging the construction of affordable housing inside the city limits. The city defines affordable housing as that which can be accessed by a family that makes 80% of Austin's median income, which is $44,300 for a family of four. Neighborhood Housing and Community Development director Paul Hilgers called the initiative "the culmination of years of work" on the part of the city, as well as business and other community stakeholders. And indeed, the affordable housing movement has been, with the exception of a series of fee waivers implemented in the late Nineties, more or less all talk and no action since the concept was floated by the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce in 1996. The buildup culminated in 1999 with the publication of the Community Action Network's report on housing costs, Through the Roof, which established the dire state of affordability of Austin housing, as well as prospects for the future that weren't much brighter.

The goal of the new program is 5,000 new affordable housing units in the city by 2005. Means of achieving that goal include:

  • Waiving development fees, with the amount waived increasing as the percentage of affordable housing units increases.

  • Reviewing current development regulations to assess their effect on affordability issues.

  • Working on the city's zoning laws to encourage the construction of more affordable housing.

    SMART housing will be funded by the city's Housing Trust Fund, heretofore only a twinkle in the city's eye, but as of this week, formally commissioned to the tune of $1 million. Of that total, 75% will go to subsidize the construction of multifamily affordable housing units, with the remainder serving to guarantee home improvement loans for low-income Austinites. But that's not all: Ideas on how to expand the program's effectiveness were bandied about freely, most of them expressed by Mayor Kirk Watson. Watson expounded from the dais on various ways to increase the Housing Trust Fund's take, the most notable of which was dedicating to it property tax revenue of previously "underutilized" city properties, such as the Pole Yard and the CSC properties, that are in the process of becoming expensive, high-revenue producing properties. In addition, Watson proposed "affordability impact statements" that would assess the impact on developers -- and ultimately, consumers -- of proposed council actions.

    Watson also said he would use his clout to encourage participation by the finance sector: "I'm going to commit as mayor and as president of the Austin [Housing Finance Corporation] to challenge the banks to help us" in facilitating the construction of affordable housing, he said. He also proposed that high-level city staff be allowed to do administrative approvals of zoning changes, instead of sending them to the council for consideration, suggesting that the move would communicate to builders that "affordability is such a priority that zoning is going to be the least of your problems," and that it would be "nearly assured that you're going to get zoning."

    As if that weren't enough to get certain neighborhood activists antsy, the mayor stressed the need for Austinites to support and encourage not only single-family homes and ownership, but also multifamily affordable housing units -- apartment complexes, to you and me. "We are going to have to recognize that multifamily residential is going to have to play a role in this city ... we need to get over certain instinctive reactions, some might say knee-jerk reactions, about multifamily."

    Following the mayor's remarks, Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman moved to allay any concerns that the discussion may have engendered. Noting that she's aware of "overlapping issues" with affordable housing, including neighborhood planning, she voiced her support for two recommendations on how to address said connections. First, the creation of "a new entity -- a true planning commission" that would undertake actual planning instead of simply reacting to zoning cases set before it. Second, Goodman spoke of a neighborhoods advocate who would speak exclusively for neighborhoods, allowing "arguments to come up at the appropriate time during the planning process." Goodman also suggested a separate community advocate who would be "able to visibly and articulately explain how a neighborhood or specific area's sustainable future is encompassed within the sustainable future of a community and those community-wide imperatives. I thought it was imperative to mention now how interrelated all this is."

    Southpark: 'World Class' or Too Much Noise?

    Add one more item to Austin's growing list of big-city accouterments: Following council action this week, the House of Blues chain got the go-ahead to turn the Southpark Meadows concert venue into one of its own. For years, Southpark has been like much of Austin used to be -- haphazard and underdeveloped. But following an expected $15 million investment by the big music chain, it will become a "world class concert venue" for the big shows that until now have faced the regrettable Frank Erwin Center as their only option in Austin. The venue will be in the tradition of the Starplex Amphitheater in Dallas and the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion in Houston, with upfront covered seating supplemented by a grassy expanse where people will watch shows from blankets and lawn chairs.

    World-class, however, is apparently a buzz word that doesn't impress some Southpark neighbors, just as South Austinites (and the council) decided using the "world class" site for a condo building wasn't worth the consequences it could have for the neighborhood. Clara Touchet and other neighbors cited the standard litany of objections, including noise, traffic, and pollution, as well as the danger that alcohol would be served to minors. But the council unanimously found Southpark Meadows to be a better fit for House of Blues than Town Lake and Congress was for the Gotham Condominiums, and so the project finally moves forward.

    The Planning Commission had previously given the project the green light, so Touchet appealed directly to the council, and as is often the case, they had to mediate what sometimes seemed like a fight among schoolchildren, with each side maintaining its rightness until the bitter end. As is also often the case, the fight involved developer's representative Richard Suttle, who in recent months has spoken for developers including Gotham and Hyde Park Baptist Church, and who prevailed in his arguments this time out.

    Some neighbors, it should be noted, were much happier with the Southpark proposal than was Touchet. After a months-long period of wheeling and dealing that garnered such concessions as landscaping to block the venue from surrounding streets, groups including the Slaughter and Onion Creek Neighborhood Associations signed on to support the project.

    On the Campaign Trail

    A recent Zilker Neighborhood Association candidates forum provided some interesting moments in the little-covered mayor's race. Since Mayor Watson did not attend, the meeting afforded lesser-known challengers Dale A. Reed, Leslie Cochran, and Jennifer Gale their moment in the spotlight. Right off the bat, Zilker residents wanted to know what made the challengers think they stood a chance -- i.e., were "viable." Reed said his years as a cab driver taught him a lot about Austin. Cochran cited his ability to "pay attention," presumably honed by his time loitering at the downtown crossroads of Congress and Sixth Street. And Gale cited her long history as a candidate for public office in Austin and her extensive campaign platform -- which she surmised might be "the most comprehensive platform in the country" -- as evidence of her fitness for mayor.

    Though onlookers may have been suspicious that the single sheet of notebook paper Gale waved as evidence was as comprehensive as advertised, her one-minute closing statement called for everything from universal health care and education to the establishment of a publicly owned newspaper for Austin, to the recognition of same-sex relationships, to dividing Austin into a series of small towns and villages of 3,000-10,000 people each. Talk about comprehensive...

    So those of you looking to cast a Watson protest vote have the whole range of options laid out before you. Cochran wants to take Smart Growth out of the hands of corporations and return it to the people, a feat he will accomplish by traveling in a "mobile mayor's office" to the far reaches of the city, hearing citizens' concerns. Gale wants to restore a sense of family to the city with a wide range of social programs. And Dale -- well, Dale is special. Just yards away from Barton Springs itself, he delivered the following pronouncement: "I worry more about the quantity of water than the quality of it." (Reed added that despite the recent 50-year water deal the city signed with the Lower Colorado River Authority, more water may be needed -- and could perhaps be supplied by way of a pipeline from the gulf). Asked how he would protect water quality in the springs, Reed recommended more water treatment plants, presumably unaware that building a water treatment plant underneath the whole of the aquifer would be prohibitively expensive. But the suggestion fits with his general theory: "I want more development in the western part of the city," he said. All those West siders heading downtown "only cause traffic congestion." end story

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